Big US data breaches offer treasure trove for hackers

6 Jun 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Data hacked from US government dates back to 1985: US official.

The hack of millions of U.S. government personnel files, and allegations that the attack may have originated in China, will put cybersecurity at the top of the upcoming U.S.

Stolen medical and personal data are now more valuable than stolen credit cards because the information can be used for orchestrating sophisticated attacks on valuable targets.New questions are emerging following Thursday’s announcement of a massive cyber-attack that targeted the private records of some four million current and former U.S. federal employees.The UK should be on the alert for a major assault by cyber-criminals, following a massive breach of the US government’s computer systems, experts warn.

UNITED STATES: Data stolen from US government computers by suspected Chinese hackers included security clearance information and background checks dating back three decades, US officials said on Friday, underlining the scope of one of the largest known cyber attacks on federal networks. The Office of Personnel Management hack is the largest ever breach of federal employee information and potentially the most damaging because of the type of data stolen. The US hack – which compromised the accounts of four million government employees – should ‘ring alarm bells’ in the UK, said Mark James, a specialist at technology security firm Eset. ‘Our security systems should be constantly monitored and tested and although we should not put any data on a higher pedestal than any other we need to realistically understand that some data is more desirable.’ Roy Duckles, of online security firm Lieberman Software, added: ‘If the US can be breached, in what appears to be a very targeted and specific attack, then there is nothing to say that hackers aren’t already in similar networks in the UK Government. ‘Should the UK Government be concerned? The agency is a potential gold mine for data thieves because it functions as the federal government’s human-resources department, managing background checks and pension payments. Accusations by US government sources of a Chinese role in the cyber attack, including possible state sponsorship, could further strain ties between Washington and Beijing.

It’s this kind of information that can give cunning hackers the ability to commit identity fraud, construct sophisticated e-mail scams known as phishing attacks, and lead to even more damaging cyberattacks seeking higher value information. “It’s likely this attack is less about money, but more about gaining deeper access to other systems and agencies,” said Mark Bower, a security expert with Hewlett-Packard. Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California system, said in a letter to university regents that “anyone who has held or currently holds a federal security clearance could potentially be affected by this, although the full extent of the exposure is still being evaluated’.’ Asked if the breach exposed security-clearance forms, a spokesman for the OPM said there was “no evidence to suggest that information other than what is normally found in a personnel file has been exposed”.

Let’s talk about how we can work together,’ ” James Lewis, a cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, was quoted by Reuters as saying. In fact, he said, some of this information could give criminal hackers the raw materials to construct targeted e-mail attacks with the aim of getting access to data about economic policy plans, military and defense data sets, or for committing intellectual property theft. The hackers reportedly used what’s called a “zero-day exploit” — a previously undetected vulnerability that often presents serious security risks, but once detected can be permanently patched. Several US officials, who requested anonymity, said the hackers were believed to have been based in China but that it was not yet known if the Chinese government or criminal elements were involved. Chinese hackers were also blamed for penetrating OPM’s computer networks last year, The New York Times reported last July, citing unidentified U.S. officials.

The cyber-criminals could piece together details from the stolen information to design convincing ‘phishing emails’, encouraging their recipients to click on a link. In a typical ‘phishing scam’, the link would automatically download software onto the recipients’ computer, which would grant the hacker access and could even corrupt the information stored on there. While it didn’t directly attribute this breach to China, the cybersecurity firm iSight Partners told Reuters that it linked the hackers behind the OPM attack to previous thefts of health records from insurance companies Anthem and Premera Blue Cross.

Among the information in those files: details such as names, addresses, family members, education, Social Security numbers, security clearances, medical and other histories. According to a US House of Representatives memo seen by Reuters, OPM knows what types of data were exposed to the hackers but not what data was taken. Chinese officials have repeatedly denied any involvement in such attacks, saying the U.S. has never offered definitive proof of a hack directly traced back to Beijing. “When we can, it’s often because hackers have made mistakes in hiding their tracks and it’s not something we can do quickly,” Schneier told VOA in an interview earlier this year. “In other cases, we’ve known with reasonable assurance the attacks came from certain buildings and offices in China and that the government knew about it and approved it.”

Gavin Millard of Tenable Network Security said the Government already has extra measures in place to protect itself. ‘The UK government has been aware of the risks associated with the huge amounts of data held on employees by themselves and external agencies for some time,’ he said. The memo was sent to House staff by Chief Administrative Officer Ed Cassidy, whose office provides support services to the House, including cyber security services. When asked why authorities waited until June 4 to disclose the attack, OPM spokesperson Samuel Schumach cited the due diligence required for publicaly responding to an attack of this magnitude. Earlier this week, a top official at the GCHQ spy agency warned that the country now faces ‘chronic, advanced and persistent’ cyber-threats every day.

Ciaran Martin, director general for cyber-security, said that cyber-criminals have attacked around 90 per cent of major British companies, costing the UK economy tens of billions of pounds a year. The successful intrusion into government personnel records shows the US, like the private sector, remains vulnerable to hackers and is largely unable to secure its computer systems from malicious attacks. A 2014 report by the Identity Theft Resource Center demonstrated that health care accounted for 42.5 percent of cyberattacks last year, and the health-care industry consistently reported the highest number of breaches over the past three years. Last month, the US Internal Revenue Service said it was the target of a major data breach by identity thieves, and experts say more attacks are likely as both criminal and state-sponsored attacks continue to get more sophisticated.

A study released in May by the research group the Ponemon Institute revealed that more than 90 percent of healthcare organizations surveyed said they lost data, most of which was to cybercriminals. Cybersecurity experts have long warned the government is ripe for an attack, particularly civilian agencies like the OPM, which don’t benefit from the help of the Pentagon or the National Security Agency. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, “It’s not clear who the perpetrators are,” but he noted that President Barack Obama and his aides regularly raise with their Chinese counterparts concerns about Chinese behavior in cyberspace.

Disclosure of the latest computer breach comes ahead of the annual US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue scheduled for June 22-24 in Washington, DC Cyber security was already expected to be high on the agenda. At Friday’s White House briefing, Earnest dodged the question of whether Washington might retaliate if it was determined that a state had been involved in the hacking.

The absence of clear guidance from congress, which has been deadlocked over cybersecurity legislation for years, and a single agency with the authority to oversee cybersecurity, has limited the government’s ability to investigate and defend against attacks. “Whether a government agency or private company, no one is immune from attacks by increasingly sophisticated adversaries. In December, US officials moved swiftly to accuse North Korea of being behind a high-profile attack on Sony (6758.T) over a movie depicting the assassination of North Korea’s leader, and Obama vowed that the United States would respond. Army, says tracking cyber-attacks is not all that different than identifying the source of a physical attack. “Some people view attribution as a yes or no switch, [and] I don’t think it’s that way,” said Jensen, one of numerous contributors to the Tallinn Manual, a rulebook of sorts on cyber espionage. “I think attribution’s a spectrum,” he said. “What a government really has to worry about is [whether] they have enough attribution to take the kind of action they want to take.

But the administration is likely to move cautiously in response to any Chinese role, mindful of the potential harm from escalating cyber warfare between the world’s two biggest economies. OPM detected new malicious activity affecting its information systems in April and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said it concluded early in May that OPM’s data had been compromised and about 4 million workers may have been affected.

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